ferries were authorized by the General Assembly in the colonial era, and were essential for north-south travelers to cross large rivers flowing east-west
Source: Federal Highway Administration, 1797 Zanes Trace (painting by Carl Rakeman)
Starting in the colonial period, the General Assembly authorized ferries and set rates. Ferries were one of the few places where travelers outside of Williamsburg needed money in the early 1700's. There were no hotels and few taverns to provide food and shelter. It was the custom of the country for travelers to approach a house at the end of their day's trip. They would be treated as guests, provided meals and a bed plus food for their horses, with no compensation accepted.
However, ferrymen had to be paid in specie (typically Spanish dollars). One traveler in 1702 described what was done when arriving on a riverbank and discovering the ferry was on the other side:1
Ferries enable passengers to cross Virginia's rivers without getting wet - unless something goes wrong, which happened to President George Washington on his tour of the southern states in 1791.
After meeting with landowners in the future District of Columbia and convincing them to sell land at a fair price for public facilities, he stayed several days at Mount Vernon and then headed south to Savannah, Georgia. When he left on Thursday, April 7, he quickly encountered a problem crossing the Occoquan River to reach the southern shore at Woodbridge. Washington recorded the incident on the ferry operated by the Mason family:2
in 1781 bridges crossed the South Anna, Pamunkey, and Mattaponi rivers where they were narrow, upstream of West Point
Source: Library of Congress, Campagne en Virginie du Major General M'is de LaFayette: ou se trouvent les camps et marches, ainsy que ceux du Lieutenant General Lord Cornwallis en 1781
In the 1900's, the state legislature funded bridges that put ferries out of business. In 1940 the state acquired the Hatton Ferry, which since 1870 had crossed the James River near Scottsville. The ferry spurred establishment of a post office five miles southwest of Scottsville, as roads connected to the river crossing and the Janes River and Kanawha Canal.
The ferry was attached to a rope or chain that stretched between Albemarle and Buckingham counties. A ferryman used a pole to push the boat across the river.
The Hatton Ferry was privatized in 2010, long after most drivers had chosen to use the Route 20 bridge at Scottsville just several miles away rather than wait for a quaint ferry ride. A decade later, a flood broke the chain and the boat was washed up on the Buckingham County shore. To restore operations, a new coalition of people concerned about preserving local history sought organized a non-profit that acquired the ferry and donated it to Buckingham County. With funding from local donors to the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society, the ferry was lifted from the bank and placed back into the river for a restart in 2022.3
the Hatton Ferry, powered by pushing a pole on the river bottom, ended up as a historic resource rather than a transportation link
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation, Hatton Ferry
a bridge over the James River at Scottsville made the Hatton Ferry superfluous
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
The Gloucester-Yorktown ferry crossed the York River until 1952, when the state built the longest double swing bridge in the world. Drivers crossing the Coleman Bridge paid a toll until 1989, to cover its construction costs. A replacement bridge, constructed with prefabricated parts, was installed in just nine days in 1995. It still swings open to allow passage of warships to the US Naval Weapons Station and the paper mill further upstream at West Point.4
the 1995 version of the Coleman Bridge swung open in 2015 to permit passage of the guided-missile destroyer USS Carney
Source: US Navy (150912-N-XG464-068)
Alexandria started as a port city, with ferries for crossing the Potomac River until the first Long Bridge was constructed in 1808.
During the Civil War, the US Military Railroad ferried loaded freight cars from Alexandria to Aquia Landing to supply the Union Army. Rails were placed on a barge, which was carefully aligned with rails on the wharf. The barges with boxcars served as the first container ships on Virginia waters.
After the Pennsylvania Railroad gained monopoly control of rail traffic using Long Bridge in 1870, the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad built a "car float" to ferry loaded rail cars across the Potomac River. The rail ferry barged cars between Shepherd's Landing in the District of Columbia and the railroad's wharf at the end of Wilkes Street. That ferry operation ended in 1906, when the railroads negotiated a deal to share a new Long Bridge and interchange cars at the new Potomac Yard in Alexandria.5
One other railroad ferry operated in Virginia. The New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk Railroad reached the southern end of the Eastern Shore in 1884. A railroad bridge across the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay was not realistic, so the railroad created a car float.
Rail cars were loaded on a barge which had its own set of rails, then ferried between wharves at Cape Charles and the southern side of Hampton Roads. The car float operated from 1885-2018, when the Bay Coast Railroad (successor to the New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk Railroad) ceased operations and most of the track on the Eastern Shore was abandoned.
The car float operations were occasionally dangerous. A loaded barge sank in Cape Charles harbor in 1981, ruining the cement, paper products, and Ford pickups in the railcars.
The New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk Railroad also chartered a passenger ferry between Cape Charles, Fort Monroe, and Norfolk. The Railroad Ferry Company served customers using the train.
Starting in 1933, the railroad also sponsored the Virginia Ferry Corporation. That company provided ferry services for all passengers and freight between Cape Charles and Little Creek in Princess Anne County. The Virginia Ferry Corporation used the railroad's wharves at each end, and half of its directors were also directors on the Railroad Ferry Company.
In 1950, the Virginia Ferry Corporation moved its Eastern Shore terminal to a wharf at Kiptopeke; that reduced the trip across the Chesapeake Bay by 12 miles. In 1953, the Railroad Ferry Company stopped its passenger ferry. The ferry boat needed expensive repairs before it could pass Coast Guard inspection, and the business was not profitable. The Pennsylvania Railroad had provided over $4 million in subsidies to keep the passenger ferry in business between 1935-1953.
The end of the ferry service interrupted the main route of travel between Accomack and Northampton counties and the Peninsula, and required a more circuitous route for Eastern Shore travelers to get to Richmond.6
until 2018, the Bay Coast Railway ferried railroad freight cars between Cape Charles-Little Creek
Source: Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, Virginia Railroad Map (2012)
In 2008, the Alexandria tour boat company that offered waterfront cruises for tourists expanded to provide regular water taxi service linking Alexandria to National Harbor in Maryland. By 2014, it had added a "Baseball Boat" to carry passengers to the Washington Nationals baseball games and concerts at the stadium in Anacostia, and a water taxi connecting with Georgetown and the National Mall.7
The next step was the development of water transit capabilities for commuters, in addition to tourists. A 2014 Federal grant to the Northern Virginia Regional Commission funded the initial start of a ferry between Jones Point Park in Alexandria and Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington DC.
The ferry would provide workers who live in Northern Virginia a new way to access the headquarters of the Department of Homeland Security, eliminating the need to drive across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. None of Alexandria's water services carry cars; all provide room for just people.8
In 2016, the private company operating water taxis between Old Town Alexandria and National Harbor, plus seasonal trips to the National Mall and the Washington Nationals ballpark, announced plans to acquire four new 100-passenger boats and start daily water taxi service in 2017. The trigger for the new, scheduled service was opening of new buildings at The Wharf in the District of Columbia. The company identified Reagan National Airport as a potential docking site as well, but the main justification of the expansion was to expand beyond tourists to provide reliable service to the commuter customers.9
ferry passing in front of Jamestown
One part of Northern Virginia was left out of the new commuter ferry plans - the area downstream of Alexandria, in Fairfax and Prince William counties. The military was unwilling to open up Fort Belvoir or Quantico to commuter ferry use, and short routes crossing the Potomac River had greater benefit/cost ratios than routes running north-south parallel to I-95 and the Virginia Railway Express (VRE).10
In Hampton Roads, Hampton Roads Transit operates the Elizabeth River Ferry for passengers crossing between Portsmouth and Norfolk. Ferries stop at two docks in Portsmouth, North Landing and High Street. There is one stop at Waterside in Norfolk, plus a second stop at Harbor Park when the Norfolk Tides baseball team has a game. The three 150-passenger ferries are scheduled to run a least every 30 minutes, with additional service during peak hours in the summer.11
the Elizabeth River Ferry connects Portsmouth and Norfolk
Source: Hampton Roads Transit, Elizabeth River Ferry
The effort to re-start a passenger ferry in Hampton Roads to cross the James River, connecting the Peninsula with Norfolk, has been integrated more effectively into local transportation planning than the effort in Northern Virginia.
Delays at the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel led to a study of the feasibility of high speed catamarans between Norfolk and the Peninsula. A slow ferry operated between Hampton and Norfolk between 1999-2002, but it failed to attract enough passengers.
The General Assembly funded a study in 2012, but the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation determined that the local governments would first have to establish the planned routes of the light rail system.12
A passenger ferry obviously would fail if it required customers to drive their car to a ferry landing, pay to park in a garage, take the ferry, then rent another car on the other side of Hampton Roads to finish the trip. A ferry would be more likely to succeed if passengers were already moving without cars, ideally walking to from their point of origin to the ferry landing and, at the end of the trip, walking to a final destination nearby.
That scenario matched the smart growth assumptions for "The Tide" light rail system, with the planning department's expectations that transit-oriented development will occur near the light rail stations. Ferry landings could be treated as magnets for new development, if there was a transit connection on the land side.
If a light rail line was built to the Norfolk Navy Base, for example, then the decision on where to locate a ferry landing could be aligned with the decision on where to locate the rail station at that end of The Tide. On the Peninsula end, however, there is no equivalent to The Tide. That part of Hampton Roads chose to invest transportation funding in the widening of I-66, rather than in the creation of a transit system.
almost all ferries have been replaced by bridges
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation, Indian Rock Ferry (Botetourt County)
Tangier Island depends upon year-round ferry traffic from Crisfield, Maryland and summertime connections to Reedville and Onancock
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
a high-speed passenger ferry from the Peninsula to Norfolk could connect with The Tide light rail transit system
Source: Federal Transit Administration, Seattle Ferry
a new Pocahontas ferryboat was dedicated in 2019
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation, The Pocahontas Ferry
Jamestown-Scotland Ferry south of Jamestown Island (click on images for larger versions)
Scotland ferry landing (Surry County)
a pre-World War II postcard shows a ferry that ran between the Eastern Shore and Princess Anne County (now the City of Virginia Beach) until the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel opened in 1964
Source: Boston Public Library, S. S. Pocahontas, automobile and passenger transport between Kiptoeke Beach and (Little Creek) Va., Norfolk, Virginia
in 2021, ferries connected Tangier Island to Onancock, Crisfield, and Reedville
Source: Mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean, Mid-Atlantic Ocean Data Portal
ferries linked Old Point Comfort to Baltimore in 1923, successfully competing with railroads for passengers and freight
Source: Library of Congress, Port facilities at Washington D.C. & Alexandria, Va